The Italian Riviera sits on the northwest coast of Italy along the Mediterranean Sea. The Italian region is called Liguria and includes key spots such as Portofino, Cinque Terre, Genoa and Santa Margherita Ligure. The Liguria region is full of stunning views and gorgeous landscapes, as the region sits along the coast and has the Alps and Apennines mountains running through the region.
Although Genoa has its own airport, it is a small airport and is unlikely there will be a large number of direct flights from your destination. With this in mind, it is very easy to get to the Italian Riviera from Milan. If traveling from outside of Milan, plan to travel to one of the two Milan Airports: Milan Malpensa or Milan Linate. Milan Malpensa is bigger and further outside the city with more flights, while Milan Linate is closer to the city centre. Alternatively, if coming from a town in Italy, you can also consider taking a fast train to Milan before heading to the coast or look to go straight to your Liguria destination. A few towns to check direct connections in Liguria to include Santa Margherita Ligure, Rapallo, Genoa and La Spezia.
Traveling from Milan Malpensa to the city centre is best done by train. Catch the train from the airport to Milano Centralle or Milan Cadorna, whatever is most convenient for your travels. The drive from Milan Linate to Milan is about 15 – 30 minutes (approx. 20- 30 euros) depending on your end destination, and there is also a bus option to reach the airport.
Once in Milan, catch a train to your destination on the coast. Santa Margherita Ligure and Rapallo are both easily accessible with direct train options from Milan. The direct fast trains which take about 2 hours from Milan run every few hours so plan in advance for the journey you wish to take if you prefer not to transfer trains. Tickets are only around 15 – 20 euros so will not be too expensive. Do not expect to have great phone service or wifi on these trains. The Liguria region has many tunnels running through the mountains preventing any strong network connections.
If traveling to the Italian Riviera, you should plan to visit a few different towns. Most towns are well connected by trains, with the exception of Portofino which requires a bus connection. The rail network makes it easy to choose a home base in one of the towns and then take daytrips to other towns leveraging the trains. Train tickets can be purchased in advance, using electronic tickets with applications like trainline or tickets can be purchased directly at the station.
Be sure to always buy tickets before the train departs. Some stations will allow you to board the train without checking your ticket. There will be train conductors who check you have paid on most journeys. You cannot buy a ticket online once the train has departed from your starting destination and the fine will be approximately 60 euros for not purchasing a ticket. Trainline is a very helpful app for looking up and tracking trains.
When exploring any of the towns, plan to wander the streets on foot. None of the towns are very large and therefore walking through the different towns gives you a good feel for each location, allowing you to pop into shops which are appealing, stop for a coffee or glass of wine on a cute terrace, indulge in gelato, or grab a take away piece of focaccia.
Portofino is the main exception to being accessible by train. There are not train stops here, but there are a few different options on reaching the town depending on your budget, plans and interests. Plan to reach the nearby town of Santa Margherita Ligure, which is easy to access by train, and journey to Portofino from here.
Walking – One of the best ways to reach Portofino is walking from Santa Margherita Ligure to Portofino. There is a nice path along the coastline the first half from Santa Margherita Ligure; once the path running parallel to the road disappears, there is an elevated path which provides beautiful views over the sea and hillside. The walk is about 3 miles and takes about an hour, but plan in time to take-in the gorgeous surroundings and snap some photos.
Ferry – If walking doesn’t appeal you, or you prefer to only walk one direction, there is a ferry running from Santa Margherita to Portofino. The ferry is weather dependent so should be checked on, but gives a nice option for getting out on the water.
Bus – There is a bus which runs approximately every 30 minutes (check current timetables) between the towns. It costs 3 euros and you can use contactless payment at the main station or directly on the bus. The bus from Santa Margherita to Portofino takes about 15 minutes and is a very easy way to reach the town. The bus can get busier in high season so be prepared.
Private Transfer / Taxi – If none of the above options are appealing or cater to your needs, getting a private transfer or taxi to Portofino is always an option. This will be the most expensive of the options, but provides the most flexibility.
The Italian Riviera is known for having a beautiful coastline where colorful houses with stunning architecture are built on the hillsides overlooking the sea. As the Liguria region is a crescent shape, many of the towns sit directly on the seaside. Rather than trying to move from location to location while visiting, pick a convenient home base and plan to take day trips to other towns. This allows for a flexible itinerary and helps prevent too much moving around while still getting to experience and explore different towns in the area.
Below are a few towns which are commonly considered for a home base destination. From North to South, the order of these towns is as follows:
Easily my top recommended spot to stay, Santa Margherita is a hidden gem. With its location sitting between key towns we hoped to visit on our trip, this was the main reason we selected it, but it greatly surpassed our expectations. The town itself provides lots of dining options from restaurants to wine bars to cafes with nice terraces and gelato shops. It sits along the seaside and has the typical Italian Riviera architecture with colourful buildings lining the coast and spread all throughout the town. It is easy to get to from Milan, with 2 hour direct trains available. It’s location makes it the most accessible town to the beautiful and upscale town of Portofino, and it is also just an hour train ride to the commonly visited Cinque Terre towns. For folks with more time, Genoa, Camogli, and Rapallo are all also easy to reach from Santa Margherita with train durations all less than 20 minutes.
The town does not feel overrun by tourists and has a great personality to it with the added benefit of more affordable accommodation options compared to the expensive options available in Portofino.
Located just a few minutes from Santa Margherita, Rapallo is another option with location as its top selling point. It is easily accessible to the Cinque Terre towns. It is also possible to walk from Rapallo to Portofino although this will make for a much longer walk than from Santa Margherita. Similar to Santa Margherita, Rapallo is on the same train line and easily accessible from Milan. If accommodation options are better or you prefer Rapallo to Santa Margherita, this is another good option.
This tiny town is stunning, and really does look like all the photos. It is known for being a town of luxury, with fancy hotels, yachts in the harbor and high-fashion designer shops. As Portofino is a prestigious destination, it comes at a price, and not a cheap one. Additionally, it is more challenging to do day trips from Portofino since the town is not along a train line. This means each time you would like to venture to a different area, you have to first get to a town with a train (i.e. Santa Margherita) before progressing to your end destination. Although Portofino is beautiful, I would avoid actually staying here unless you would like to do one night for the experience. If staying more nights, you will need to be comfortable with a higher price and either planning to stay and relax in the area or deal with the longer journey times to reach other towns.
Cinque Terre, which literally translates to five towns, is an area along the coast where there are five towns connected by trails, trains, and ferries making it relatively easy to hop between them and visit each. Cinque Terre is not as easily accessible as Santa Margherita and Rapallo from Milan, but still not too challenging to reach. The trains from Milan will likely run to La Spezia and take about 3 hours. From La Spezia, there is a train which runs between La Spezia and Levanto. The train stops in each of the five towns and typically runs about every 15 minutes. The journey between most towns is only a few minutes so depending on which town you are going to will impact how much longer your journey is extended.
Although Cinque Terre is nice, I prefer it for a day trip than actually staying in the town. This is because the towns themselves are all quite small, allowing you to explore each when visiting for a day. The area is also filled with tourists, and can feel too busy. The evenings should be better than the days, but it may become overwhelming or frustrating to deal with constant flows of tourists.
The five towns are listed from north to south below:
Monterosso – this is the largest of the towns, and the town I would recommend staying in if you choose to stay in Cinque Terre. The old town area has many cute restaurants and shops, and there is also a beach with many bars offering beachside views for drinks or meals
Vernazza – this village is known for being the most colorful, making it my third choice option. The town is very cute, and it has the nicest harbor. There are also nice restaurants or spots to grab a drink from above with gorgeous views.
Corniglia – the smallest of the towns and the one I would least recommend staying in. Corniglia is the only town without access to the sea as it sits high above the water. When arriving by train, you either must climb a few hundred steps, or take a tiny bus which is often overpacked and guaranteed to have a long queue, to reach the town center. The steps are fine without luggage, but would be not be ideal for carrying luggage up.
Manarola – the picturesque hillside of Manarola would be enough to put this as my second recommendation. It is known for having beautiful sunsets as the sun lights up the town at golden hour and the views are breathtaking.
Riomaggiore – This town feels very separated as it has a harbour section, an upper level and a main center. For this reason, it would not be one I would recommend as others provide better perks if choosing to stay in Cinque Terre
More like a city than the others, Genoa is the capital of the Liguria region. If you prefer a larger home base, Genoa is a good option for you. I prefer the quaint, smaller towns or villages to Genoa, but Genoa is very accessible to other towns and will be quite affordable.
Definitely the most glitzy and fanciest town, Portofino is known for being a luxury destination. The picturesque town sits along the Italian coast and is a great place to spend a few hours exploring. The town itself does not allow cars, and there is not a ton to do aside from walking around, checking out a few different viewpoints and enjoying a drink or bite to eat with a view.
Climb up to the Castello Brown for a nice view over the water and Portofino town center. There will be some stairs from the harbour that lead up to Castello Brown. The walk only takes about 5 to 10 minutes. When you reach Castello Brown, if it is open, pay to walk around the premise for another view. Alternatively stop along the way up for a few views and continue past the Castello where you have the option to go down.
Church around the town center in Portofino
From the Castello Brown, going down the stairs will bring you to a lounge bar and viewpoint to relax and enjoy the view
The walk between Santa Margherita and Portofino is one of the highlights of visiting Portofino. If you are able to walk 3 miles and up for getting some steps in, walk one direction between the towns. If choosing to leave from Santa Margherita, you will start along the path following the coastline looking out onto the sea. Eventually you will reach a point where this path ends and here you will take the path on the opposite side of the road to go up and walk on an elevated path overlooking the surrounding area. This point will be around Baia di Paraggi, a big public beach along the way.
Continue on your walk until you reach Baia Cannone. Look for this point on the map as I would recommend getting off the path to check out a quiet swimming spot. Even if you do not want to swim, it is worth taking a quick detour. At Baia Cannone, exit the formal path and follow the road around the bend until you see a set of stairs going down to the water. These stairs will be opposite an orange and yellow villa. When you take the stairs down and turn left, the stairs will reach a small stone area where you can swim or just enjoy the view of the villas and seaside.
Once you finish visiting Baia Cannone, backtrack to the path and get back on the path as it will not be pleasant to continue walking on the roadside. Follow the path until you reach Portofino. Plan for about 1 hour to 75 minutes so you can take your time along the way. The walk can easily be done in either direction if you prefer to walk back from Portofino to Santa Margherita.
Small seaside town with beach and many cute restaurants. From Santa Margherita or Rapallo, trains will only be 5 – 10 minutes and operate about 1x / hour. If traveling further from towns in Cinque Terre, plan for a longer journey (1 – 2 hours). When traveling from towns like Cinque Terre, Camogli should be done with other towns in the area like Santa Margherita and Portofino. Camogli is a cute town, but also will not have a lot to do aside from walk around the town, enjoying the beach if it is a nice day, or sitting for a drink.
Bigger than Camogli, Santa Margherita also sits right on the water and has a nice town center. Walk along the path hugging the water, wander the streets, stop in a wine bar for a drink, and enjoy a traditional Italian meal in town. Santa Margherita feels less touristy than some of the surrounding towns, and also offers great prices with easy access for afternoon or day trips to other towns.
Cinque Terre is a coastal area comprised of five towns. The towns are linked together by trains, hiking paths and a few are accessible with a ferry. When visiting for a day-trip, it is nice to have options. If planning to use the train, purchase the one-day pass (Cinque Terre Train card) for about 18 euros which provides unlimited journeys on the train between towns for the day. Train tickets can be purchased at any of the stations. Be sure to always carry your ticket and validate the ticket as you will be fined if caught without a validated ticket.
If you enjoy an active day, consider taking the full hike between the five towns. This provides spectacular views and is broken up nicely with stops in the various towns.
Biggest and oldest of the five villages, Monterosso is divided with an old town and new town area. Be sure to venture over to the old town as there are cute streets with nice restaurants, wine bars and cafes to enjoy a drink in. It is also the only town with a proper beach, including beach chairs and umbrellas set up to enjoy on a warm summer day. The beach draws in a lot of visitors so do not expect to have the town to yourself.
Known for being the most colorful of the five villages, Vernazza has a gorgeous harbour. Find a few of the lookout points above the town with nice views of the town. Depending on what direction you choose to visit the towns, consider sitting for a wine tasting at 5 Terre Bistrot to try wines produced in vineyards between the towns.
The smallest of the five villages and the only village without water access, Corniglia sits higher above the shoreline. In order to reach the town itself from the train, you will either need to wait for a tiny bus which is typically overpacked or climb a stone staircase to reach the town. The stairs are doable for those who are mobile and would recommend climbing if possible to avoid the undesirable bus. The town itself feels small and is a good stop for a takeaway gelato, wine tasting, or afternoon snack. That being said, if running short on time, it can be skipped.
Manarola is also quite small, but provides picturesque views of all the colorful houses sitting on the cliffside. It is a beautiful spot to catch a sunset as the sun lights up the cliffside at golden hour. When visiting Manarola, be sure to check out Nessun Dorma for an afternoon snack or sunset drinks. The restaurant has perfect views of the town and worth putting your name in the queue. As there are no reservations, use the phone application to get in the virtual queue. While you are waiting, explore the town and stop for a gelato.
This is the first village when traveling from La Spezia. It feels split into three parts with a harbour area, the main town and an upper town. Like all the towns, it is not too large either. Check out each of the areas of the town. The harbour area offers beautiful views of the town, the upper section has a nice hillside walk and the main town has cafes, shops and places to grab a snack. If possible, try to take the ferry from Riomaggiore so you can observe the town from the water and use the ferry for transport to the next town.
Bigger city with easy connections to other coastal towns
Delicious restaurant sitting seaside with gorgeous views of the town and water. Try the traditional Ligurian pasta dish with trofie noodles, pesto, and sometimes served with green beans.
Excellent restaurant with a diverse set of fish and seafood options
Technically located between Santa Margherita and Portofino, the restaurant has outdoor tables right next to the water. Due to the location and outdoor seating, it is a seasonal restaurant that can only be visited in the summer with nice weather.
Wine bar with great service along the coastline path in Camogli. Grab a seat at one of the outdoor tables here for a glass of wine and some small bites before dinner.
Cozy wine bar on a side street in town, with great vibes, good wine and delicious food. Stop in here for snacks or lunch in the afternoon, or later in the evening, noting they do close between lunch and dinner.
Along the Portofino harbour, after wandering around the town of Portofino, sit down here for an afternoon glass of wine.
Probably one of the best views in Cinque Terre, Nessun Dorma is perched on the hillside with a gorgeous view of the colorful Manarola houses on the opposite side. The restaurant is open from approx. 12:30 until the evening (time varies depending on weather and season). The restaurant does not take reservations, but there is an application you can download for the restaurant to get into the virtual queue. Then, once you are one of the next 10 to be seated, make your way back to the restaurant. The tables have great views and provide an excellent spot for lunch, an afternoon snack or dinner.
The restaurant does not serve hot food, and instead offers a variety of small plates including different bruschetta combinations, charcuterie boards, and other meat & cheese selections. They also have spritz cocktails and wine which goes nicely with an afternoon snack. Since the restaurant does not serve hot food, it allows tables to turn over quickly. Thus, do not be deterred by the inability to make a reservation. Instead get in the virtual queue while exploring the town of Manarola. If you happen to be in town around sunset, the colorful houses are illuminated in the sunlight at golden hour and provides a beautiful sunset location.
Sitting on the main road in Vernazza very close to the train station and the water, this little bar offers wine tastings from local vineyards found between the five towns
Venture up the hill slightly in Vernazza for drinks here overlooking the town and area around. At this spot you will have an elevated view providing a unique spot for a drink
Cute wine bar in the Old Town of Monterosso with great atmosphere and in a nice location
Small bar serving drinks overlooking the Monterosso beach
Nice spot along one of the main pedestrian streets with tables outside providing a perfect location for an afternoon drink while people watching
Delicious gelato with very friendly employees and an abundance of flavors to pick from
Delicious gelato shop well worth a stop with a wide assortment of flavors to choose from
Small gelato shop with some standard and very unique flavors including basil and a combined lemon and basil flavor.
One specific Italian food item Liguria is known for is the focaccia. With this in mind, be sure to try focaccia in different places when visiting to pick your favorites.
A must try while in Santa Margherita, this bakery offers many different types of focaccia including plain, olive, pesto, onion, cheese, and more. The pesto focaccia here is especially tasty!
Another must try for focaccia, this shop has some different flavors including focaccia with sun-dried tomatoes, rosemary seasoned, sage seasoned, and olive focaccia.
This is an Italian shop with great options if you would like some drinks and snacks to bring back with you and enjoy in your own accommodations. Check out this shop to see what catches your eye.
A common snack to have in Cinque Terre is a cone of fried seafood. Tutti Fritti offers a variety of options for a quick snack while exploring the town.
Little cafe just after you enter the area of town where cars are not permitted if coming from the bus stop. This little cafe is great for a take-away morning coffee. Alternatively, stop by here in the afternoon for a gelato on a warmer summer day.
The weather will be best between April and October in Northern Italy, with summer months being the most consistently sunny but also quite hot. Additionally, the core summer months will mean more crowds, which may impact your experience. Cinque Terre specifically draws in lots of tourists. During our visit in mid September, it was still hopping with tourists so can only imagine how busy it gets in July and August. With this in mind, try to visit on the shoulder months of summer where you are likely to still have warm temperatures, but benefit from less crowds.
As the Italian Riviera sits along the coast, but in the mountains, the weather may constantly change. Generally, from April to October, temperatures will be warm to very hot and a beach day becomes ideal. If rain is forecasted, bring your umbrella just in case especially if traveling to an area different from where you are staying. The weather may be completely different just an hour away as the weather navigates around the mountains.
A long weekend, or 3 days, is the perfect amount of time for a visit to the Italian Riviera. Pick a home base location, and then adventure to nearby towns and beaches by day. This provides you the opportunity to see different areas without having to move accommodations multiple times.
Transportation and Accommodations
Things to do and see
Food and Drinks